Thursday, January 13, 2011

Take this Job and Shovel It!

Above is a statue of John Henry, the “strongest man alive” who became a folk legend when he went up against the latest technology (a steam-powered hammer) in a race to see who could lay the most railroad track. It was a test of man vs machine, and John Henry won…except due to the immense effort he exerted during the challenge, he collapses and dies during the victory celebration, still with the hammer in his hand.

Now I’m no John Henry, but I do have a thing for manual labor over mechanical assistance. I prefer to rake my leaves, rather than walking around with a leaf blower. I own a push mower instead of a ride on. I bust out the post hole digger instead of the auger. When possible, I choose a broom over a vacuum, screwdriver over a drill, and bike over car. And, until yesterday, I took pride in always shoveling my own snow (as well as the fact that I would often beat my snow-blowing neighbors in the process.)

Thanks to Benedict (the lamest name for a brutal storm ever) we received about two feet of snow overnight, with drifts up to 4 feet.  Undeterred, I waited until I heard the guy next door firing up his snow blower and raced outside, shovel in hand, to defend my honor. Well, first I had to figure out how to get outside, what with four feet of snow pushing up against the door – but once out there, I was ready.

There was so much snow it required three shovelfuls per spot before I could see pavement, but I tightened the strap on my hat and dug in. It wasn’t heavy, but it was deep and I had to fling each scoop up over the five-foot high banks left from the last two storms, with the wind blowing much of my work back into my face.

Periodically checking my progress against my neighbor, who had the help of six teenagers AND his snowblower,  I wasn’t feeling too good about my chance. Fact is, I wasn’t feeling too good period. We have a rather long, double-wide driveway, and there was a LOT of snow covering it.

I decided to focus on clearing a path for my wife’s car first, that way if we had to get out we could, and if I got tired, I could finish the other half later. I soon developed a nice rhythm and things were looking good. Especially since my neighbor’s “help” – in typical teenage fashion - were assing around in the snow, busy flinging snowballs and taking bumper rides on the slowly passing cars.

As the end of the driveway drew near, I found myself eyeing the eye-high wall of snow left by the plow. Perhaps I could tunnel through it, I thought, but my pride was too great, and scoop by scoop, I took it down.

Two hours later, and one half of the driveway clear, I was ready to call it quits. I had succeeded in clearing a path, "just in case", plus I could smell the grilled cheeses my wife had made for lunch and my gloves were soaked. But, my pride kept me going. I started to dig in behind my truck when I heard the unmistakable sound of a snowblower. I looked up to find another neighbor plowing through my driveway like a hot knife through butter. I put my shovel down and raced over to politely decline his kind assistance, yelling over the noise that perhaps there might be some elderly neighbor who could use his help more than me, but he dismissed me with a wave of his gloved hand, and proceeded to clear the remaining snow in less than ten minutes (a job that would have taken me another two hours.)

To be honest, at that moment, I was happy for the help, but now, twenty-four hours later, it’s eating at me. I can no longer say “never” when it comes to snowblowers, and it was a bit emasculating brushing the snow off our cars with a broom while he was powering through it with his machine. We did “beat” my neighbor and his six kids, but I could not enjoy the victory. Even the grilled cheese tasted like defeat (but that could be because it was on whole-grain bread.)

I’m not saying I would have preferred to die like John Henry with a shovel in my hand, but it would have been nice to finish the job like a man, even if it meant not winning the race.  


  1. Hey Mike,

    Look at it this way, you did accomplish half and had the will to complete the task. You will is what drove and would have continued to do so.

    As for you neighbor. How kind. Having caring neighbors in a world full of crass, selfish people should have given you a lift ... no pun intended.

    Enjoy your half victory, Most men wouldn't have done a fraction of what you did.

    Man that's a lot of snow!

  2. being an amazonian member of the fairer sex, i used to take great pride in my ability to fend for myself against the elements...i used to mentally mock my former roomate, who would never clean her car off by herself, rather leave it to her man...

    a few years go by and, then married, i found myself proudly swinging my great grandfathers pick fork, pulling apart broken chunks of foot deep concrete to install a paver dear old fashioned/never leave the house without make-up on neighbor comes by to tell me "you know, you are so lucky you are able to do those things, if you had kids you wouldn't be able to"


    yesterday i spent the day cozily in my room with my darling daughter who showed zero interest in the outer elements...feeling fairly ineffectual less the occasional fb nutritional check in, i did the only chore that only the woman of the house could do...i sorted out my skivvies and cuddled my precious princess :)

    leaving the house today for the first time i mentally critiqued the narrow pass of the driveway...but then thought, you know, i would NEVER want to go out there & make it wider, so thank you dear hubby for all your hard work :)


  3. You won the insight that you have a caring neighbor. When I was a young boy I hated to shovel snow but loved making the snowmen afterwards. I was the prototype for the weird snowmen of Calvin's.

    I've always thought that leaf blowers were the perfect symbol for the 21st century : take care of your problem by making it someone else's. Blowing leaves out into the street or into your neighbor's yard just seems odd somehow.

    You have a great blog, Roland

  4. Thanks all

    Gideon and Roland, you are both absolutely correct - I did not mean to diminish my neighbor's assistance - we've only lived here since August, and i don't even know his name, but I certainly appreciate his help. Plan to leave a gas card and bottle of wine in his mailbox (little fuel for snowblower, little fuel for him...)

    And Anonymous (Amy?) - you need to start your own blog! Your comments are worthy of their own space and make my post pale in comparison

  5. pale post? asparagus???

  6. When we got the two feet of snow last month and shoveled almost non-stop for 2 days, I cried a little when the plow truck finally got to us. Tears of joy, every one (even when I had to pay him $70).